Home > Awwad Tawfiq Yusuf, Feminism, Humbook, Lebanese Literature > You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

  1. davidsimmons6
    December 22, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Like you, my exposure to Lebanese literature is limited. If you decide to read more, which the blog you refer to strongly supports, you might try Amin Maalouf. Three of his books are listed in this top 50 list. Having recently read two of his works, I’d suggest The Rock of Tanios” (Le Rocher de Tanios) as the comments following the blog suggest. However, I’d push for the French version if feasible in order to sample Maalouf’s style, which is what impressed me the most.

    Like

    • December 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      How could I forget Amin Maalouf!!
      I have read Les croisades vues par les Arabes, Samarcande, Les Jardins de lumière, Léon l’Africain, Le Rocher de Tanios and Le racisme expliqué à ma fille. He’s great.

      Like

  2. December 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    This was a great review – the book is on my list now. Elias Khoury has an absolutely fantastic book called “Gate of the Sun”, which is about Lebanon fourteen years later – during the War of the Camps, and the massacres at Shatila and Shabra. It’s intimately connected with Palestine as well – moves back and forth in time and space. I recommend it.

    Props on Amin Malouf. Some of my favourite lines in all of literature are by Malouf:

    “I come from no country, no city, no tribe. I am the son of the highway, my country is a caravan… all languages, all prayers belong to me.”

    “Our countries are oases that we leave when the water dries up… we rely only on each other, across generations, across the seas, across the Babel of languages.”

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    • December 23, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve seen Gate of the Sun is available in French in paperback. It’s on the TBR now.

      Amin Maalouf is excellent. For me, he’s a French writer. He’s a member of the Académie Française! His novels always include a message of tolerance and he tries to build bridges between the Western and the Arabic worlds. Léon l’Africain is brilliant and Les croisades vues par les Arabes is fascinating.

      Like

  3. December 22, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    This sounds as though it’s a book I’d really enjoy. I’d never heard of it. Sometimes I see Arabic books on Goodreads and they appear to be only in Arabic–no English, so I should check out the site you mentioned.

    Like

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

      You’d like this, Guy.
      This site seems great for English-speaking readers. I need to find a similar one for French readers since the books translated into French are not always the same ones as the ones translated into English.

      Like

  4. December 23, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I love your review Emma, and I’m so happy you enjoyed the book, I was worried that being published almost 40 years ago, the book no longer brings anything to new to understanding this sensitive period before the war started. It’s amazing to me how easily you grasped the complex situation in Lebanon, the social as well as the political one. What a fascinating decade this was – mid 60s mid 70s – around the world, so many countries’ systems forever transformed as a result of the students’ movements and the questioning of existing ideas and values. Unfortunately, for us, not much has changed since then, and Death in Beirut could have been published in 2013 and the questions it raises would still be valid.

    Like

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      Thanks Nino. I was worried about the possible mistakes in this entry. I’m not an expert in politics, far from that.
      I was thinking the same thing about the decade 1965-1975 when I was writing my billet. It is a fascinating one.
      I’m sorry to read that Deith in Beirut could be valid today.

      When I was reading, I remembered about a book I read when I was around 10. It was a story about an impossible friendship between a Protestant and a Catholic in Belfast. I remember feeling helpless and angry at the adults who could not see that before being Protestant or Catholic, they were children. I felt that way again when I read Death in Beirut. What a waste. Nothing should prevent one from seeing someone else’s humanity before anything else.

      Like

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      I forgot two things.
      The first one is about the nomination of the Arab teacher in Hani’s village. It reminded me of France in the Third Republic: the triangle between the mayor, the priest and the school master. The three pillars of the French village in 1900. And they used to fight.

      The second one is about Tamima going to the Ecole Normale. Does the name come from the translation or does it exist in Beirut? Because of the ties between Lebanon and France, I thought it possible that such a school existed, but I couldn’t be sure.

      Like

      • December 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm

        The name must come from translation, because here we call the public university Universite Libanaise like anything else public (radio liban, teleliban, etc…). The nomination you refer to is problematic because it concerns a public institution and because at that time villages (even cities to some extent) were quite uniform in terms of religious and even sectarian affiliations, one had to be quite adventurous to fly outside his own flock

        Like

        • December 23, 2013 at 8:18 pm

          Thanks for the explanation.

          Like

  5. December 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! This book looks quite wonderful because it depicts an important period in Lebanese history. Tamima and Hani look like fascinating characters. Glad to know that this is one of your favourite books of the year. It was interesting to know about the different ways Arabic names are written in English and in French. I remember when I was in school, we used to read about a Moroccan runner called Said Ouita. Now I know that his name is written in the French way 🙂

    Like

    • December 23, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      It’s worth reading, Vishy. It’s the right combination between the history of a country and the life story of the characters.
      I liked Tamima. She’s brave, intelligent and open-minded. She’s well-read despite her humble origins. (her mother doesn’t know how to read). She’s the new generation, one that had a better access to education.

      Like

  6. December 23, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I don’t think I’ve read a lot of Lebanese literature. But I’m relatively familiar with the history because a friend of my mother lived there and spoke about it constantly. And I worked with a woman from Lebanon. Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East once, wasn’t it?
    I looked whether there’s a German tranbslation but couldn’t find any and the French edition is a bit expenisve. Plus a book buying ban is coming. Hopefullly it will last longer than last year (five days).

    Like

    • December 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      It’s a complicated history.
      I didn’t know Beirut was named like that, but I’m not surprised. There are fascinating pages about Lebanon in L’Argent by Zola.
      Perhaps you can find used copies. Do you have a subscription to a library in Mulhouse?

      PS: my book buying ban lasted longer than yours. I’m starting a new one in January. I need to reduce the piles.

      Like

      • December 23, 2013 at 10:29 pm

        Is the ban for a specific period or just until the piles diminish?

        Like

        • December 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm

          Given what I have on the shelves and on the kindle and the number of books I read every year, I’d say the book buying ban could last two years. I doubt I’ll manage more than six months.

          Like

  7. December 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    It sounds very good. I’ll look out for it. It’s impressive how much you picked up of the political context from the book, it speaks well to the writing.

    Count me as another Amin Maalouf fan. I’ve only read one of his (it’s reviewed at mine) but I was hugely impressed.

    Good luck with the book buying ban!

    Like

    • December 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Hi Max,
      I think you’ll like it. It made me understand the social and political context. Given its complexity, as you say, it proves the writer’s gift.

      PS: I keep wondering if he knew Romain Gary. Same generation, same career as a diplomat at the same time and both writers. Plus Gary had been in the area during the war.

      Like

  8. Zeina Toutounji-Gauvard
    July 30, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Hello Emma,
    I just discovered this thread and your beautiful and sensitive review of my grand father’s novel, Dans les Meules de Beyrouth. (he wrote it in 1968 but published it only in 1972 as he had to look for a new publisher). I have started launched the project of translating into French this wonderful and essential novel. He is a classic author, though still so contemporary, that has been taught in high schools and universities. And I am happy to announce that another French translation will be published in the fall ( for French book fair of Beirut) of his first novel “AL RAGHîF” ( LE PAIN) that deals with famine and the first world war in Lebanon and the rise f Arab nationalism. It’s a wonderful novel I am sure you’ll appreciate it and enjoy reading it. In France it will be published in January Feb- 2015. I am looking for a publisher for the English version of Al Raghif and hopefully publish again Death in Beirut ( it’s only available on print on demand on the internet, Lynne Rienner publisher).
    Death in Beirut has been translated into English, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese and Hebrew. They’re all ( except the English) out of stock but some are available on Amazon, Russian and Hebrew books.
    As for the spelling of Arabic names in French and English, it is really a problem and I was wondering if I should keep the English way it looked so awkward to me as a Francophone and used to the way we spell his name…
    So watch out for the release of the next book and let me know if you liked it.
    Thank you and thank you to all your followers hoping they’ll read my grand father’s books.
    Best,
    Zeina

    Like

    • July 30, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      Hello Zeina,

      What a wonderful comment to receive. I hope you succeed in having Death in Beirut re-published in English. I have to thank the Lebanese blogger Nino for introducing me to your grand-father’s work. And I loved his novel.

      Who will publish Le Pain? Actes Sud? I’m interested in reading it, for sure.

      All the best

      Emma

      Like

  9. Zeina Toutounji
    January 3, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Hello Emma,

    Just to inform you that “LE PAIN” ,the first novel my grandfather wrote and the one considered to be the first Lebanese novel per se, will be released in France on February 4, 2015, with Actes Sud.
    Happy New Year!

    Like

  10. November 15, 2015 at 8:20 am

    I came back to this review today because of all that’s happened this week. It’s comforting to read. Thank you.

    Like

    • November 15, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      Hmm, I don’t think I understand why you find it comforting. Can you be more specific?

      Like

  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
  2. June 21, 2015 at 9:38 pm
  3. November 1, 2015 at 8:03 pm

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